Antiquities looting and the human rights of subsistence diggers

I’ve finally published something on the Human Rights of Subsistence Diggers. I cannot thank the editors of Ethics and the Archaeology of Violence, Alfredo González-Ruibal and Gabriel Moshenska, enough.

Summary execution and the death penalty for theft

The discussion exploded after American archaeologist Elizabeth Stone visited Iraq and found out that Coalition soldiers were ‘reluctant’ to confront looters ‘because’, if they intervened, ‘people were going to get killed‘. She declared that she would like to see ‘helicopters flying over there shooting bullets so that people know there is a real price to looting this stuff’ or ‘helicopters flying over these sites, and some bullets fired at the looters‘. She insisted that ‘you have got to kill some people to stop this’.

The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) condemned those calls to arms as ‘intolerable‘, but a number of its members did not agree. The then Director-General of the National Museum of Iraq, Dr. Donny George Youkhana, judged that, ‘if they steal from mankind… it is fair they should be shot‘.

In fact, the Coalition had been ‘flying helicopters low over archaeological sites, firing warning shots to shoo away looters’, and had been for nearly two months when Stone and Youkhana made their interventions. And at least ‘several’ looters had been killed at one archaeological site, while the authorities had imposed the death penalty. But even the threat of death didn’t stop the looters.

An end to all that

Last year, the Chairman of the Iraqi Parliamentary Committee on Tourism and Antiquities, Bakr Hama Siddiq, drafted a new law on the protection of cultural property that abolished the death penalty for looting, because ‘archaeological treasures are important, but human life is more important‘.

Virtues impracticable and extremely difficult: the human rights of subsistence diggers

In discussions at the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in 2003, in my MA dissertation at University College London (UCL) in 2004, and in conference papers at meetings of the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) in 2004 and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in 2005, I asked if an illicit digger had a human right to loot antiquities if they had no viable economic alternative to access their most basic rights (to water, food, medicine, etc.).

The question was so contentious that I chose not to blog it until I had published it and, after a disastrous accidental first attempt immediately following the conferences, I didn’t revisit it until I was given this opportunity (so I am grateful several times over).

My argument had the dubious distinction of being discussed by other people first, in moral arguments on subsistence digging and the ownership of archaeological finds (the first of which was re-presented as a matter of archaeological site management); then, considered by more people who had read those publications, in an ethnography of looters and a contemplation of ethics and archaeological praxis (practice).

(I’m not at all criticising the people who discussed it. I gave my conference paper to one of the first authors and they communicated its contents accurately. It’s simply not ideal for the argument to exist only in summary form and amongst other discussions.)

As the abstract explains,

This chapter reviews how chronic and acute environmental and humanitarian problems, and economic and health insecurity drive the looting of archaeological sites, and how political and legal weaknesses enable and are perpetuated by illicit trading.

It considers the logic and effectiveness of shoot-to-kill policing of theft of cultural property, the deterrent effect of armed guarding of cultural heritage sites, and the potential for sustainable cultural economies and community education to reduce cultural destruction non-violently.

In the light of evidence concerning the socio-economic profiles of illicit antiquities diggers in Iraq, Mali, Palestine, Jordan and Niger, this chapter queries the argument that there are never sufficient moral grounds for antiquities digging.

It concludes that it is immoral and counter-productive to criminalise subsistence digging when there is no viable economic alternative.

The uncorrected proof is available at:

The final publication is available at:

Contact me for further details.

Contents of Ethics and the Archaeology of Violence

Chapter 1: Introduction: the only way is ethics. (Gabriel Moshenska and Alfredo González-Ruibal)
Chapter 2: Ethics in action: a viewpoint from Israel/Palestine. (Raphael Greenberg)
Chapter 3: Archaeological ethics and violence in post-genocide Rwanda. (John Giblin)
Chapter 4: All our findings are under their boots! The monologue of violence in Iranian archaeology. (Maryam Dezhamkhooy, Leila Papoli Yazdi and Omran Garazhian)
Chapter 5: Archaeology of historic conflicts, colonial oppression and political violence in Uruguay. (José María López Mazz)
Chapter 6: “Everything is kept in memory.” Reflections on the memory sites of the dictatorship in Buenos Aires (Argentina). (Melisa A. Salerno and Andrés Zarankin)
Chapter 7: Archaeology, anthropology and civil conflict. The case of Spain. (Alfredo González-Ruibal, Xurxo Ayán Vila and Rachel Caesar)
Chapter 8: A gate to a darker world: excavating at the Tempelhof airport (Berlin). (Susan Pollock and Reinhard Bernbeck)
Chapter 9: Archaeology, National Socialism and rehabilitation: the case of Herbert Jankuhn (1905-1990). (Monika Steinel)
Chapter 10: The ethics of public engagement in the archaeology of modern conflict. (Gabriel Moshenska)
Chapter 11: Military advocacy of peaceful approaches for cultural property protection. (Laurie W. Rush)
Chapter 12: Cognitive dissonance and the military-archaeology complex. (Derek Congram)
Chapter 13: Working as a forensic archaeologist and/or anthropologist in post-conflict contexts: a consideration of professional responsibilities to the missing, the dead and their relatives. (Soren Blau)
Chapter 14: Virtues impracticable and extremely difficult: The human rights of subsistence diggers. (Sam Hardy)

7 Responses to “Antiquities looting and the human rights of subsistence diggers”

  1. Didn’t Saddam’s police publicly behead looters on live TV in the mid 1990s? Didn’t help. People have to eat.

    Your last paragraph raises an interesting if somewhat unrelated ethical hypothetical for me. If we give great weight to local community interest, can a local community decide they want to blow up a heritage site and destroy it for all time for everyone? Can they decide they want to dig it up and sell it off piece by piece even if their basic needs are already met?


    • It’s especially difficult when you consider the reverse – that states sometimes (less violently, but nonetheless) damage or destroy sites (or permit the damage or destruction of sites) against the will of affected communities. But two wrongs don’t make a right. And there have to be norms that enable but manage “non-violent development”, etc. We should respect communities’ sensibilities, but they should respect other communities’ sensibilities likewise.

      I think that’s why you have to have intercommunal regulations that establish respect and acceptance of difference and “non-conformist” symbols. (Can majorities destroy minorities’ sites? Can present communities destroy absent communities’ sites, even though those absent communities exist elsewhere and are still affected by the destruction?) I think both the immediate and long-term consequences make it unacceptable to allow historical cleansing.


  2. Reblogged this on HARN Weblog.


  3. The claim that the US had been shooting at looters in Iraq for two months when Donny George and Elizabeth Stone called for such action is not supported by the quote from Atwood’s article. He is talking only about what happened right after the visit he made, and is getting his information from the military (uncorroborated). So far as I know, there was almost no policing of archaeological sites undertaken by coalition forces with the exception of those surrounding our bases; certainly nothing like the kind of ongoing policing that would have to accompany the use of warning shots to be effective. (McGuire Gibson, by the way, has argued that a show of force at the very start of the occupation would have nipped the looting in the bud, and given the coalition time to rebuild Iraq’s site security and archaeological police.)

    But perhaps you have uncovered evidence I didn’t, evidence that we posted armed guards or engaged in daily overflights. Either would provide a fairer test of whether looters would have been deterred by warning shots. What we do know, on the other hand, is that gangs of armed looters attacked the unarmed guards on numerous sites, shooting and either killing them or driving them off, and that the carabinieri brought in to try to mitigate the disastrous massive looting that broke out as a result of the coalition’s fecklessness were themselves attacked and some killed. It may be a human right to loot if one is starving; is it a human right to kill those charged with protecting sites? How about museums? In the nineties, the day after the nofly zone was imposed, looters attacked numerous site museums, killing guards and pillaging the storerooms.

    We also know that sites on which the guards were provided weapons and local sheikhs were enlisted were largely spared looting. And, of course, we know that looting was rare in Iraq until sanctions eroded Saddam’s capacity to police. Looters in the nineties were not deprived of the rights to water, food, etc. They were looting because they could make a living (and if lucky, a good enough one to buy a BMW).

    So I’m not convinced from the example of Iraq proves that an armed response to looting is ineffective as a deterrent. The ethical question, of course, remains as to whether in situations of extremity the human right to survival trumps the public’s interest in preserving its heritage. That’s an easy call in the abstract, but much more difficult in the concrete, which is where policy is made, and where there is a spectrum of duresse, from Syria and Iraq to Egypt. There is also a spectrum of cultural goods that needs to be taken account of. Donny George and a few other brave museum workers, waiting for the Americans to finally arrive with tanks, put their lives on the line brandishing steel pipes to ward off a carload of looters brandishing Kalashnikovs to protect what remained in the Iraq Museum. Were those holdings worth dying for? worth killing to protect? If looters were starving, would that change the answer to the question? Lastly, there is a spectrum of responses possible, from martial law to shoot-to-kill to warning shots to a show of force to nonlethal weaponry to passive deterrents (are high-voltage electrical fences okay?) to sanctions by traditional authorities etc., etc.; calibrating these measures to the situation is what deterrent theory and intelligent policymaking is about. These are knotty questions, and just the tip of the ethical iceberg. I’m looking forward to reading your chapter to see how to think carefully about them.

    The good news is that technological advances have the potential to make it unnecessary even consider use of lethal force.


    • I would defer to you on pretty much anything concerning Iraq, but I’m not sure what you mean by saying that Atwood’s information is uncorroborated. Do you mean that it has not been officially reaffirmed by a more senior military figure than his army captain source? Presumably, Atwood would have included any contrary statement given before publication and the article would have been revised to include any contradiction or clarification that the army issued after it.

      He reported in September/October that the army began to do that in late May, and presumably deliberately used the continuous form of the verb to indicate that the policy was still in place (though, as you say, I don’t know how systematically or haphazardly it was implemented). So, from late May to early July might not be quite eight weeks, but I don’t think “two months” would be inaccurate.

      I agree that there is a chasm between theory and reality. My argument is as much about the potential for aid, development and education to reduce looting without anyone’s endangerment and to remove any potential moral dilemma from policing.

      I’m very happy to see non-lethal protection of sites and completely support the necessary use of force to protect guards, visitors and anyone else. With regard to cultural properties, I would prefer law enforcement agents to be the armed defenders, to help (even in some small way) to distinguish civilian community services from politicised state forces.

      Non-lethal material might need protecting itself, though. At one site in Cyprus, some antiquities were stolen, so they put up a fence, then the fence was stolen. 🙂



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